“To create, one cannot be constantly other focused.” Gail Sheehy
The pressing demands of daily life have a rather sobering ability to suck all of the creative oxygen out of a room. They don’t even have to be big, catastrophic type demands. Sometimes simply the endless dripping of life’s mundanities can wear away our reserves until there is nothing left. There are just so very many ways to be pulled in the direction of others–in spite of how necessary facing inward is in order to give free voice to our creativity
The first place my mind went when I read that quote was of that stage of life when noisy, adorable children or loud, boisterous teens are always around. I have such compassion and sympathy for frazzled parents out there who sometimes despair of having two minutes to call their own, let alone actually produce anything anyone might want to read. It is certainly no accident that my own strongest work was produced once my kids left for college.
But within about five minutes of their departure, I quickly discovered there are lots and lots of additional ways to be pulled outward and become other focused.
Mental and emotional clutter
Gatekeepers: critique partners, agents, editors, reviewers
To create, we have to go inward and listen. One needs freedom to get lost in the flow. To get bored. For some, this can be easy to accomplish, for others, not so much. A lot will depend on our temperament and stage of life.
Our inability to go inward might very well be because we’re stuck in a stage of life where more immediate needs overwhelm us so thoroughly that we despair of ever writing again. When this happens, it helps to remember that while it is highly possible we can do everything, we very likely won’t be able to do it all at once.
The other mistake we often make is in thinking that because someone we know can do it, that all of us should be able to do ALL THE THINGS AT ONCE as well. Or vice versa—we think that because we can do everything at once, that everyone has that option if they just get serious and disciplined about it. But that completely ignores the reality that all of us have different support systems, temperaments, coping strategies, and radically different family dynamics. Some people, the lucky, lucky few, will be able to do everything they desire precisely when they desire it, but they are most emphatically the exception. (And yes, I know those lucky few work hard as well, but there is no question that luck is also involved.)
Often, finding the time to write isn’t only about the physical, butt in chair time, but about the more difficult task of finding the mental space and sustained concentration needed for creating.
Emotional and mental clutter is another culprit and often keeps us from being able to access our richest stories. This might stem from unresolved tensions or drama going on in our family of origin, or issues in our immediate family, or a leaking of one into the other. They might be old, unhealthy relationship patterns or ways of seeing ourselves. Perhaps your family role is that of taking on more than your fair share of responsibility, being the social glue or familial fixer, or even the resident accountant during tax season. It can also arise from concerns about what friends or family will think when they read your work.
In the YA community, because we rely so heavily on gatekeepers—parents and teachers and librarians—we talk sometimes about soft censorship, which is the practice of not banning a book or complaining about it, but simply choosing not to put it on the shelves or tell readers about it for fear of the parental hailstorm it might bring down. As writers, we’re very aware of that we can sometimes find ourselves choosing to skirt an issue rather than meet it head on, or try to soft focus it rather than feature it front and center. We can easily end up internalized these “hot topic” issues and choosing not to write about them. This is especially true if the issue is one we experienced intimately within our family. We are not only braving to expose our own hard truths, but issues we have spent our entire lives denying or wishing did not exist. When these concerns leak into our writing, we are letting others interfere with our creativity and telling our core, essential stories.
Mental clutter isn’t confined to families, however. It could just as easily be that your critique group is rife with the theatrics and backstabbing befitting the middle school cafeteria. Or maybe you find yourself engaging in, or even simply following, all the drama that is rife on the internet.
The internet and social media are incredible tools for writers to use, both for research, staying on top of their industry, and connecting with other writers and readers. But the truth is, we can become overdependent on it until it, too, becomes one more thing encroaching on our writing energies. The seductive lure of the interwebs can make it hard to settle down to our creative work when an entire playground full of playmates in on Twitter or countless memes and cat pictures are being shared on Facebook without us.
Then of course there is the very real, and possibly valid, fear that if we don’t engage in every conversation, connect with every reader, be involved in ALL THE PLATFORMS that we, and more importantly our work, will slowly fade into oblivion and be forgotten.
That is in no way meant to be a social media bashing, by the way, just a cautionary warning to pay attention to how it saps pure creative energy—how it diverts us from that inward path and redirects us so that, once again, we are focusing on others.
Because lets face it, oftentimes it is easier and more entertaining—and offers more immediate gratification—to engage in a social quickie with our peers than to stay focused on that inward work—especially when it is not coming easily.
I often think that forcing ourselves to step back from this sort of distraction requires even more discipline than simply plopping one’s butt in a chair. After all, we are human, and we are writers, so we are fascinated by the interplay of characters and motivations, but after a certain point, it is not providing fodder so much as it is simply a delaying tactic.
Another way we all too often let others interfere with our writing is when we pay too much attention to that mysterious conventional wisdom that circulates on websites and blogs. The agents who tell us a certain story won’t sell, or the editor who implores a writers conference to stop with the rhyming picture books—yet rhyming picture books are still a staple of children’s publishing offerings. Or the romance editors who insist couples need to meet within two pages or have sex seventeen times or whatever. So we collect these bits of conventional wisdom in our head like a dryer vent collects lint until we can’t let any fresh or ‘risky’ things in our books because we know it won’t sell.
The last other I’m going to talk about is the hardest, because it is also at the heart of what we do, and that is readers. Readers are the lifeblood of our industry. Without them, no books would be published and writing would be an even more solitary and isolated exercise than it is now. It is hard to overstate how essential readers are, and how beloved by writers. There is nothing more magical than that moment when, through your work, you reach out and connect with a total stranger.
And yet . . .
Not all readers are going to like our stories.
Or they might like the idea of our story, but not how we executed it.
Because the reading experience itself creates part of the book, not all readers are going to even read what we thought we wrote and will come to some surprising (and not always pleasant) ideas about our meaning or intent.
While constructive critique does have a place in the writing process, it is essential that we not give negative voices more power than they warrant or let them too far into our head. The more time we spend listening to those voices, the more we are turning outward and risk weakening our work. By allowing nay-sayers to take up more space in our creative center than those who love our work, we are in effect de-valuing that connection we have made.
Of course, it is partly human nature to obsess on the negative, but we humans can also work to control the adjustment switch on some of that.
And there is even questionable benefit in letting adoring readers into our head too much when we’re creating. It can mean being distracted by wanting to please them again, to connect with the again, instead of being true to the story we are writing and telling it in the most powerful way we can.
In what ways do you find yourself being pulled in the direction of others? In what ways does it force you to pull back from your work or to soft censor yourself? Can you let yourself imagine what you would write or how you would write it if you could block out all the others?